Birdwatch: Rare glimpse of graceful '˜sea swallows'

Birders along the Yorkshire coast are on the lookout for rare roseate terns as they begin their journey south from their only UK breeding colony at the RSPB's Coquet Island off the Northumberland coast.

The number of breeding pairs of roseate terns has been steadily recovering over the past few years.

Among places where they might call off are South Gare at the mouth of the Tees, the end of Filey Brigg and at Beacon Ponds where one was seen last week.

Terns are also known as sea swallows, a reflection of their grace and beauty, and the roseate with its long tail streamers, black beak with a blood red base and white plumage which can be tinged with pink in spring is the most elegant of them all.

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At one time they looked to be heading for extinction in Britain with an 80 per cent fall in population between 1969 and 1991 to just 500 pairs.

Since then there has been more than 15 years of conservation work which has involved the construction of terracing and special seabird nest boxes on both Coquet and Rockabill, Europe’s largest colony off the southern Irish coast.

Roseate terns like to nest in tight communities in sheltered locations so the boxes on terraces have proved perfect for them and had an immediate effect. The number of pairs breeding on Coquet rose from 24 in 1999 to 34 the following year and last year there were 111 pairs, the highest for more than 40 years.

This year the number is down to 102 pairs but there is still satisfaction that the total is a three-figure one despite a difficult year for all tern species on the island.

Resident warden Wez Davies said there was bad weather at a critical chick rearing stage for all tern species but the roseates look, thanks to the nest boxes, that they will have a higher productivity than the others.

Good numbers of roseate terns are fledging now and all have been given a special  roseate tern ring on the right leg and BTO on the left. They are gathering on rocks ready to begin their journey back to wintering grounds off the West African coast.

There is no public access to Coquet Island but this year cameras were set up among the roseate nest boxes and a huge audience including wildlife enthusiasts from Australia, Russia, Canada and the US has been able to watch them. The live link is at

 A number of storm petrel ringing evenings have been held at Filey Brigg with more than 30 birds caught while another storm petrel ringing and moth trapping night was held last weekend at the Living Seas Centre at South Landing, Flamborough.

As always such sessions can be suddenly cancelled if the weather is unsuitable so it is always advisable to check the Filey Brigg Ornithological Group’s site for latest details before leaving home.

A few quails have been reported with singing individuals heard near the Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve and Fraisthorpe village.

More little gulls have been reported with 100 plus, many in adult plumage, passing over Beacon Ponds Waders including a curlew sandpiper.